Oedipus & Back the Future (Brooke Daley)

Northrop Fyre discusses New Comedy in the essay, The Argument of Comedy. Fyre describes how New Comedy follows the plot of Oedipus. A young man attempts to win the affection of his mother, while an older father like figure is the opponent[1]. An example of an Oedipus style New Comedy is Back to the Future (1985). There are two Oedipus themes at work in Back to the Future. One is Marty and his father’s romantic rivalry for Marty’s mother, Lorraine. The other is Marty and Biff’s rivalry for the same woman.

The first love triangle centres on Marty, his mother and father. Marty attempts to get his parents to fall in love, however Lorraine is more interested in Marty than the man she eventually marries. The roles of father and son are switched in Back to the Future, as Marty plays the role of Laius. In this triangle, Marty is the father figure whose presence impinges upon Marty’s father’s success. Marty’s father plays the role of Oedipus as he ultimately ends up with Lorraine.

The second love triangle centres on Biff. Earlier in the film, Marty gains Lorraine’s affections by accidentally becoming a romantic rival to Biff. In this triangle, Biff is playing the role of Laius. In a sequel, Biff becomes Marty’s stepfather, reinforcing the Oedipus theme. Marty challenges Biff and is rewarded with taking Lorraine to the dance. Marty’s father overcoming both Marty and Biff can only resolve the two triangles.

Back to the Future exemplifies the Oedipus storyline of New Comedy. By reserving the traditional roles of the story the film reinforces Freud’s analysis of Oedipus. Marty’s intervention in the past forces the characters to follow the established patterns of the Oedipus story to have an acceptable outcome. The storyline is only resolved satisfactorily when the outcome conforms to Freud’s model of human behaviour.

[1] Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia,

1949), p.58.


One comment

  1. “Back to the Future” is definitely a perfect example of the Oedipus narrative. I understand your reading of Marty as the father figure but I initially thought of Marty as the Oedipus character who has a knowledge of the future and how everything must play out. I think you could say that the film is explicitly following the Oedipus story but actively disrupting it.

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